Coaching Tools and Challenges
Imagine the letter T as a symbol of professional coaching. The horizontal bar represents a coach’s variety of clients, assignments and challenges. The vertical bar represents the selection of professional tools, systems, techniques and approaches available to coaches. To strengthen their vertical bar, coaches can adapt proven concepts from a variety of fields, including “neuroscience, sports psychology, positive psychology, mindfulness” and “experiential learning.”
Neuroscience finds that brains remain plastic or malleable. The brain can rewire itself and develop new brain cells. Understanding the brain’s regenerative capacity can help coaches in their work. Brain researcher Jeffrey Schwartz refers to coaching as “facilitating self-directed neuroplasticity.”
“Some skills – such as effective leadership – are built from a complex interweaving of many component subskills.”
Neuroscience also offers insights into the process of personal change. For instance, it has established that visualizing yourself engaging in an activity sparks the same part of the brain that becomes alert when you physically perform that activity. Urge clients to clearly visualize themselves doing something they want to accomplish.
“When we or our clients try to change the way people act, it is easy to underestimate the time required for new practices to become entrained.”
Professional coaches use visualization to help clients reduce anxiety, envision themselves attaining specific objectives and establish desirable goals. Visualization works best if the client visualizes an event as accurately as possible to the actual event. Sports psychology expands the use of visualization with the “PETTLEP” approach, which stands for:
- “Physical” – While visualizing some action, wear the clothing you’d wear while performing the act you visualize. Make the act’s physical movements while visualizing.
- “Environmental” – In your mind’s eye, see the place in which the action will occur.
- “Task” – Picture the task in its entirety. For instance, imagine every minute of a speech.
- “Timing” – Envision the act in the speed at which it will occur.
- “Learning” – As your skills improve, incorporate them into your visualization.
- “Emotion” – Feel the emotions of the visualized action.
- “Perspective” – Visualize how the audience might perceive you.
“Different people prefer to learn in different ways.”
Use positive psychology to affirm your client’s best attributes, such as “optimism, courage, work ethic, future-mindedness, interpersonal skill, the capacity for pleasure and insight and social responsibility.” Help clients adopt an upbeat attitude and become happier. Martin Seligman’s “PERMA” principles create a checklist for helping your clients attain a heightened sense of well-being. It encompasses:
“Experiential learning is a core mechanism by which coaching has lasting impact. The discipline…typically provides at least 70% of a person’s learning.”
- “Positivity” – Encourage optimistic emotions such as joy, affection and thankfulness.
- “Engagement” – Focus on fully immersing yourself in the moment at hand.
- “Relationships” – Develop close ties with others to boost a positive state of mind and “physical resilience.”
- “Meaning” – Find the larger purpose in all you do.
- “Accomplishment” – Set and achieve goals to build confidence and momentum.
Setting goals requires understanding the differences between “process goals,” which involve how to complete a task; “performance goals,” which call for attaining a targeted objective; and “outcome goals,” which emphasize results.
“Visualizing yourself performing an activity engages the same parts of the brain as if you were actually performing the activity.”
Mindfulness means being conscious of the current moment. While mindfulness originated in “the great religions and practices of the East,” people in the West tend to equate it with reducing stress and depression. Mindfulness, which derives from meditation, can help clients mellow their “emotional reactivity,” improve their memories and enhance their “cognitive flexibility.”
“Help your client recognize that the move into a new role is likely to be more challenging than she expected – especially if the move is into a new firm or culture.”
Mindfulness calls for observing a “moment-to-moment experience” without becoming attached to any outcome. Mindfulness training can help clients learn to live more in the moment at hand. Mindfulness helps coaches feel peaceful and clear their thinking before coaching sessions.
Experiential Learning: 70/20/10
Coaches need to understand that people learn more through experience than through instruction. During the 1960s, the Center for Creative Leadership outlined the 70/20/10 ratio of learning: People accomplish 70% of their learning through “self-directed, on-the-job development” in a challenging environment. A mentor, coach or other influential person is responsible for 20% of someone’s learning. The remaining 10% derives from formal instruction, like classroom work.
“Excessive stress leads directly to substandard performance as core elements of the brain are kept in heightened vigilance and have less capacity for task or relational focus.”
Coaches should reflect on how some well-known learning models might apply to their clients’ personal and professional development. Famous educator John Dewey is known as the “father of experiential education.” His learning model moved from “observation” and “knowledge” to “judgment.” W. Edwards Deming’s “quality cycle” has four steps: “plan, do, check” and “learn.”
“The ethical coach will be careful to check the evidence for new notions before positioning them as accepted wisdom.”
Coaches often rely on strategies using specific coaching tools or a cluster of coaching tools. Such strategies include:
Those who perform at expert levels retain critical information in “highly accessible chunks” or “context-sensitive modules.” This capability derives from extensive, focused practice. Coaches should encourage clients to: 1) Set definitive goals; 2) follow a practice program; 3) seek reliable feedback; and 4) retain high-level knowledge and skills. Help your client create a program of deliberate practice. The client should seek “immersive crucible experiences.”
“Neuroscience illuminates why certain aspects of coaching work and even if it does not change your coaching radically, its findings will help you use your coaching tools more effectively.”
Becoming a Master
Clients seeking to become masters in their fields should examine the lives and work of the famed Old Masters of oil painting, admired artists who themselves “stood on the shoulders of giants.” Venerable painters like Delacroix studied and copied earlier pieces by Rubens and Michelangelo to learn from them. In fact, “Rubens himself made many detailed copies of Leonardo da Vinci’s works.” They also gained expertise through:
“Neuroscience’s findings can provide rigorous support for certain beliefs about how we act, react, lead and coach. In some cases, it can debunk widely held myths and…reprioritize the interventions we apply.”
- “Places” – The more you travel, the more you learn.
- “Patrons” – The Old Masters relied on patrons to subsidize their art.
- “Prior art” – Study the best work that’s already been accomplished in your field.
- “Productivity” – The Old Masters delegated some work, such as painting backgrounds.
- “Practice” – They worked constantly.
- “Passion” – They loved everything about painting.
“Collins’s Hedgehog and the BHAG”
Management author Jim Collins developed two notable business models, “Hedgehog” and “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal” (BHAG). The hedgehog tactic helps people build focus. Collins depicts the wily fox wandering here and there, taking a scattered approach to life. In contrast he quotes the Greek poet Archilocus that, “the hedgehog knows how to do just one thing and does it well.” Collins’s Hedgehog model explains that organizations become successful by adopting a narrow, clear focus. His BHAG model assigns a sweet spot to a challenging goal that meets three criteria: “What I love doing,” “What pays well” and “What I do really well.”
“When we are mindful, we think clearly and we react to events authentically, yet without excessive emotionality.”
“McKinsey’s Three Horizons”
In 1999, three McKinsey & Company partners published The Alchemy of Growth. It defined business success as operating in your field’s top 10% of practitioners, in the present, in the near future and in the far future. Businesspeople must heed “the foreground, middle ground and more distant horizons.” For personal and business success, clients should build on their current work, create momentum for the mid-range and plant seeds for future growth.
“Mindfulness techniques can improve our coaching, through their effects on us as coaches or on our clients.”
Psychometrics describe personality traits or measure such performance areas as critical reasoning. Coaches use psychometric testing to assess clients’ needs. These tests may include the NEOPIR, which measures personality based on “neuroticism (emotional stability), extraversion, openness to ideas, agreeableness and conscientiousness”; the Hogan Development Survey, which measures negative personality aspects that could sabotage an employee’s future; the Occupational Personality Questionnaire, which measures work performance; and FIROB, which measures “control, inclusion and affection.”
Coaching Clients Through Change
Coaches often support clients who are undergoing such transitions as changing careers, handling 360-degree feedback, becoming effective board members and learning to supervise younger workers. Tried-and-true coaching approaches to these recurring situations include:
“Practicing the techniques of mindfulness – the psychological state of calm awareness of the present moment – can significantly improve emotional control, cognitive function and physical well-being.”
Clients who are changing jobs or roles face transitions involving two journeys: the “intellectual journey” of learning the new job and the “social journey” of getting along with new colleagues. People usually manage the intellectual journey, but they more often have trouble with the social journey. Coaches should help their clients prepare for both journeys by closing out their old roles and plotting the best paths for negotiating their transition. Encourage your clients who are amid change to develop the widest possible support groups of relatives, co-workers and friends.
Organizations increasingly use 360-degree feedback to rate employees. Coaches must counsel and assist clients undergoing this process. Before coordinating with clients, coaches should discuss the nature and purpose of particular 360-degree strategies with those running the program. Coaches must make sure that their clients understand the 360-degree system in use, whether it’s a new experience or the client has experienced similar reviews. Coaches should adapt their standard approaches to the 360-degree“agenda” at hand and should “think carefully and creatively about who should or should not be solicited” to give feedback.
To tackle the coaching job of guiding a board of directors, determine where the power resides on the board. Usually, this will be the chair. Assess whether your assignment is just a matter of “good housekeeping,” or if the board is facing a specific issue. Focus your coaching on group effectiveness by going through these steps with the board:
- Agree on the specific nature of the assignment.
- Evaluate the board’s situation.
- Request ideas on how to fix things from individual board members.
- Secure additional ideas from informed sources outside of the board.
- Deliver a report to the chair and board members sharing useful insights.
Coaches today often must assist executives who are managing younger, Generation Y (born between 1980 and 2000) employees. Common wisdom says that members of Gen Y have specific demands and needs, yet 2013 research by PwC, the London Business School and the University of Southern California finds these workers are basically no different from older employees.
Coaches should advise executives to incorporate the following messages in their Gen Y management plans: Assure Gen Y employees they made the right decision to join your firm. Give them opportunities to learn and expand their knowledge and capabilities. Provide regular, positive feedback, and enable them to network, collaborate and join team activities.